Wednesday, 3 September 2008


When, as the story goes, F. Scott Fitzgerald sighed that the 'rich were not like us', Ernest Hemingway replied 'that's right, they have more money'. Since Hemingway was telling the story, it's not surprising he gets the better line, but 'the rich' about whom both writers were talking were Gerald and Sara Murphy, and indeed the glamorous trendsetters for the Lost Generation were not like Scott or Ernest.

Sadly, the Murphys are remembered primarily in the sense of what we now call 'celebrities', with all the diminishing that term implies. Their image remains glossy, as you'd expect for a couple immortalised as Dick and Nicole Diver in Fitzgerald's TENDER IS THE NIGHT. Their image as celebrities was enhanced when it was filtered through Calvin Trillin's famous memoir, LIVING WELL IS THE BEST REVENGE.

Yet even if considered only as proto-celebrities, Gerald and Sara are sadly under-appreciated. After all, they invented summer on the Riviera, with a life-style imported from the beaches of the Hamptons in New York. They attracted a circle which included, apart from Scott, Zelda, and Hemingway, Picasso (who idolised Sara), Leger, Diaghilev, Stravinsky, and Cole Porter as well as American writers as diverse as John Dos Passos, Dorothy Parker, Archibald MacLeish, Gertrude Stein and many more of the key figures of the 'Lost Generation'. Man Ray took their family portraits. The Europeans were captivated by their seemingly effortless style, the Americans by their patrician grace. Gerald's striped sailor shirts, knitted caps, and espadrilles remain as fashionable now as they were when he first threw them together as a Mediterranean beach outfit. Picasso painted Sara's unique way of wearing her long string of pearls down her back at the beach, 'to give them air'. He made Gerald the figure standing primly next to the piper in his painting 'The Pipes Of Pan', a painting that now seems to reveal more than it might have been seen to at the time. Photos of Picasso, and his mother, cavorting at fancy dress parties in the sand at Antibes capture the Murphys' infectious flair for revelling in the moment. At every turn, you sense their liberating energy. It was Sara who liked to say that champagne should always be drunk looking upwards, at the sky.

The sheer weight of accomplishment of those drawn to befriend the Murphys has led history to pigeon-hole them as 'society bohemians', possessing a slumming sort of dilettante-ish noblesse oblige. This view lends itself to belittlement, as Hemingway did infamously in his brilliant, if sour, recollection, A MOVEABLE FEAST, the book with which he settled scores with all those who had helped him along the way.

But the Murphys are far more pivotal, and their story more fascinating, than that. It is told brilliantly in Making It New, an exhibition curated by Deborah Rothschild, which opened last summer at the Williams College Museum of Art, and now is about to close in Dallas after its third showing. This is one of those rare gallery shows whose story can be followed room to room, like a play in three acts. In Act One the viewer gets charmed by the Murphys, seduced by the atmosphere they created around themselves, in both Paris and the Riviera, which attracted and in many cases nurtured, creative talent. In Act Two, the exhibition convinces you of Gerald's undoubted talent as an artist. Finally, in Act Three, tragedy strikes, and not only does Gerald's urge to paint get set aside, but the very essence of 'living well' changes too.

Both Murphys grew up wealthy. Sara Wiborg's father, son of Norwegian immigrants, made a fortune in printing, and married into a prominent family. One of her uncles was Civil War hero William Tecumseh Sherman, another was Senator John Sherman, author of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act. She and her two sisters were sensations, quintessential Gibson girls, when they debuted in London; they traveled regularly around Europe, where their mother longed to find a 'suitable' marriage to some sort of nobleman. By contrast, Gerald's father Patrick, son of Irish immigrants, worked his way up to ownership of the Mark Cross company, then prominent Boston saddlers. Strangely enough, the French painter Signac, whom they would meet on the Riviera, came from a family with a similar background in saddlery. Anticipating the era of the automobile, Patrick moved the company to New York and into luxury consumer items, what his son would later brand 'a monument to the non-essential'.

Gerald and Sara met on the beaches of the Hamptons, where they summered, but it was not until Gerald, five years younger, was at Yale that the relationship blossomed. They married against the wishes of both families: Sara's mother thought she was marrying beneath herself, while Gerald's father thought him too irresponsible to marry. From the start, they showed an exuberant capacity to see life as a form of art: Gerald's tiny letter-within-a-letter, written for his infant daughter when he was serving in the Army during World War I, is a touching hint at what was to come.

Subsuming their life in what might now be called performance art came naturally to Gerald, whose hidden sexuality is one of this exhibition's main themes. From his schooldays, he believed he suffered from a 'defect', which he needed both to keep secret and to overcome. He did that by making himself immensely popular. At both posh Hotchkiss school and at Yale he was voted 'best dressed, and wittiest'; at Yale he was considered such a 'thorough gent' he was 'tapped' for the secret society Skull & Bones, which has included three generations of Bushes among its influential members. From the start of his relationship with Sara, he was able to indulge her desire to be a free spirit, in return she nurtured him and indulged the roles he played. There is an interesting parallel with Hemingway, to whom Sara would remain extremely close, but whose later antipathy for Gerald had it roots in the Paris studio Gerald lent him, and in which he created his early, brilliant prose. Hemingway had a way of estranging himself from those who’d helped his career, as if not wanting to be reminded he wasn’t a totally self-made man. He had also sought Gerald's advice about leaving his first wife, Hadley, for Pauline Pfeiffer. Like Sara, Hadley was older than her husband, a nurturing figure, yet Gerald encouraged Hemingway to leave the marriage in order to 'protect' his art. As Hemingway bounded between wives he came to blame Gerald for deliberately misleading him, and perhaps attributed this 'betrayal' to Gerald's sexuality.

But if Sara were the emotional anchor, Gerald’s talent and his demons were the eye-catchers. His work forms the centre of this show. Soon after the Murphys moved to Paris in 1921, where Sara's trust fund and Gerald's stock market investments could stretch incredibly far, he walked past Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler's gallery in the Rue la Boetie, and was stopped in his tracks by the Cubist works offered in a liquidation sale: Picasso, Braque, Gris, Derain. 'If that's painting,' he told Sara, 'that's the kind of painting I would like to do.' He began studying with Natalia Goncharova, and through her met Diaghilev. Soon he and Sara were decorating sets for the Ballets Russes, while Gerard pursued his painting. He began working on large scale canvases. Sadly, of the 14 paintings he is known to have completed between then and 1929, only seven survive.

None of the works he displayed at the 1923 Salon des Independents are among those seven survivors, though photographs of 'Turbines' and 'Engine Room' convey their power; cubist constructs of the modern mechanical age. In the 1924 Salon, Gerald's 'Boatdeck' was a sensation. Eighteen feet by twelve, its depiction of a an ocean liner's smokestacks and funnels captures the essence of the new place of people within the modern world, and anticipates work by artists like Charles Sheeler. Even now, the black and white copy of the painting, taken from a contemporary photograph, dominates its exhibition room completely, just as it did at the Salon.

Exciting as his painting is, the details of a ballet Gerald was commissioned to write and design are even more astounding. The commission came from Diaghilev's arch-rival, Rolf de Mare of the Ballet Suedois. Working with his Yale glee club colleague, Cole Porter, on the score, Murphy came up with 'Within The Quota', the story of a young Swedish immigrant who arrives in America and meets the American stereotypes Europeans believe they will find there: the Heiress (a subject close to home for Murphy), the Jazz Baby, the Cowboy, and the Sweetheart of the World, each modelled on images from the movies. A newsreel cameraman stands on stage, taking the story down. And behind the stage is a backdrop, a giant newspaper front-page, with headlines like 'Unknown Banker Buys Atlantic'. Readers of John Dos Passos' USA trilogy will hardly miss the influence, in the newsreel format and headlines which mark that classic tale of the contradictory drives and repressions of Jazz Age America.

Murphy's most famous painting is 'Razor' (1924), which features a pen, a razor, and box of matches. Its simplicity remains powerful today; it exudes modernity even though safety razors, fountain pens, and matches have all been bypassed by technology.
Other items that might be sold at Mark Cross crop up in his paintings, the shaker in 'Cocktail' (1927), and the watch whose intricacies are painted in striking detail in 'Watch (1925)', as if he were deconstructing the mechanisms of the life he had abandoned in America. Some of his paintings hint at surrealism: certainly one gets the impression of the subconscious welling its way up, particularly in the aggressive sexuality of 'Wasp and Pear' (1929) the last of his surviving works.

Then he simply stopped painting. One might think he had gone as far in self-examination as he dared, but the practical reasons are more compelling. The stock market crash of 1929 forced the Murphys, for the first time, to consider economies. At the same time, and more importantly, their younger son, Patrick, was diagnosed with tuberculosis, and the family moved to Switzerland to be near him in the sanitarium. Gerald never took up a brush again. His energies were devoted totally to helping Patrick recover and making his life bearable until he did. Both Murphys' creativity focused on their son, who despite his youth was already an accomplished artist. The high point of this part of their life was Patrick's recovery, for a final voyage on their yacht Weatherbird, in the summer of 1934.

They returned to America later that year. The luxury goods offered by Mark Cross had less appeal in the Depression, and the business was failing. Gerald now devoted himself to saving the family firm, which he did effectively until he retired. Patrick's tuberculosis got worse, and he took another cure, at Saranac Lake. But in early 1935, the Murphys robust elder son, Baoth, was striken by measles at his boarding school. Within a week, he was dead of meningitis. That fall, Leger visited Patrick, and they did portraits of each other which make a touching pair. Patrick's version of Leger catches both the strength and sensitivity of the artist; Leger's drawing shows Patrick almost literally fading away beneath his sweaters and blankets. Patrick died in 1937, and rarely can an event related through displays in glass cases and pictures hung on walls seem as moving as this one does to the viewer of this exhibition. Whose life would not unravel in the face of such loss?

Earlier in the 1930s, Gerald had written to Archibald MacLeish, explaining his 'resentment' of his 'defects', and saying that his life had been 'a process of concealment of the personal realities, at which I have been all too adept'. He would make only one more effort to return to the artistic world: working on the ballet 'Ghost Town' with the choreographer Marc Platt. Perhaps influenced by his losses, he appears to have at least made efforts to come to terms with his sexuality, though the marriage to Sara remained strong and their life together pursued with a scaled down version of their French glamour. But tellingly, he recounted that he had never been as happy as when he was painting, and that he had never been totally happy since he stopped.

Gerald Murphy was 'rediscovered' in a 1960 exhibition of neglected American artists at the Dallas Museum of Contemporary Art, which makes its return to Dallas, nearly half a century later, particularly apt. Trillin's New Yorker profile, the basis of his book, appeared in 1962. Three years later, Gerald Murphy died. Sara lived until 1975, dying aged 95. The Murphys lived well, but you might well argue life took a good measure of revenge on them, rather than the other way around. But they continued within their private world of style, albeit in different circumstances it served more as shelter than avant garde. They might be as good an illustration of Hemingway's ideal of 'grace under pressure' as we've ever been presented. The effect of their lives, as this wonderful exhibition (and its accompanying catalogue) make clear, remain with us, still vibrant, today.

Making It New: The Art & Style of Gerald and Sara Murphy
At the Dallas Museum of Art through September 14 ,2008, previously at the Williams College Museum of Art and the Yale University Art Gallery
Catalogue, edited by Deborah Rothschild, 238pp University of California Press /Wiliams College Museum of Art, ISBN 9780520253400

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